The government says it has a “holistic plan to strengthen journalism and enhance democracy and freedom of expression”. Its conduct proves otherwise.

It still cannot, or refuses to understand, the role of the media and bloggers to act as watchdogs. Robert Abela and the Labour Party he leads fail to walk the talk. They persist in persecuting the independent media and promote de facto impunity in the same fashion his predecessor did.

A committee of experts was set up in the aftermath of the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry earlier this year but, rather than being given a free hand to propose what its members think is necessary, they were tasked with giving feedback on draft legislative changes drawn up by the government after consultations it says were carried out “with key stakeholders”.

The terms of remit of the committee of experts are, therefore, very restricted. It has little room, if any, to come up with its own recommendations, which, the three judges conducting the inquiry had commented, should be implemented in a holistic and organic framework aimed also at giving the journalists’ profession deserved recognition and ensuring the work they undertake in the interest of democracy is valued.

It seems the government preferred to take its own route, which makes one wonder whether the prime minister is fully aware of the contents of the public inquiry’s findings.

Had he or his party strategists been aware, they would never have allowed the image of blogger and activist Manuel Delia to appear on a billboard together with those of nine politicians and the words “Bernard [Grech] – the face of the past”.

This is not the first time it happened. Caruana Galizia’s face had also appeared on a Labour electoral billboard in 2013. Four years later she was blown up in her car soon after leaving her home.

A comment made by the public inquiry board was very relevant then and it remains relevant today. Labour, both in opposition and in government, had considered Caruana Galizia a formidable political adversary, rather than a journalist, who had an agenda and opinions that had to be thwarted on a political level. Being a threat to political power, politically the need was felt to suppress her in some way.

The derogatory campaign in her regard was stepped up, she was attacked via Labour Party’s media channel One and the social media.

It still happens.

The Labour Party, and especially its One channel, denigrates journalists deemed unsympathetic.

Manuel Delia’s face featured on a billboard and he says that, up to just a few days ago, he had to report individuals to the police for insulting and threatening him, also seeking a magisterial protection order.

PEN Malta said it all when, reacting to the decision to feature Delia on the electoral billboard, commented that Abela’s condemnation of attacks on the media sound hollow when his party continues perpetuating such hostility. At least, Abela told reporters last Saturday that the offending billboard has since been replaced. But somehow, we suspect it won’t be the last incident involving journalists.

Abela’s administration is far from ensuring a favourable environment in which journalists can exercise their profession in an effective manner, without harassment, as the public inquiry had recommended. Till this day, he refuses to sit for one-to-one interviews with most of the independent media.

Abela may have his mind at rest he will win the next election. But he still has so much to do when it comes to truly respecting and strengthening journalism.

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